Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Nears Goal

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) is scheduled to begin orbiting Mars on March 10th, seven months after leaving Earth on August 12, 2005.

MRO Aerobreaking: Artist's concept of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in its aerobraking stage. Image courtesy: NASA/JPL.
MRO Aerobreaking: Artist's concept of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in its aerobraking stage. Image courtesy: NASA/JPL.

Designed to study Mars in a low orbit, the MRO will have to make a tricky maneuver before the orbit is achieved. As the MRO approaches Mars, NASA expects to receive a signal around 3:24 Central time from the MRO indicating that it has turned its main thrusters forward and begun a 27-minute engine burn meant to slow the spacecraft down enough to allow Mars' gravity to capture it. The engine burn will end during a 30 minute window when the MRO is behind Mars and out of radio contact, so controllers will have some time to sit and worry. And there is good reason to worry. Past NASA missions sent to orbit Mars have had only a 65% success rate. If the engine burn is successful the MRO will be in a very elliptical 35-hour orbit. In order to get the MRO into the desired circular 2-hour low orbit it will continue to use Mars' atmosphere to slow it down. This process, called aerobraking, is also very tricky as Mars' atmosphere is unstable and can swell unpredictably. Current Mars orbiters in higher orbits will monitor the atmosphere to help keep the MRO at a safe and effective orbit.

Once the desired orbit is achieved, scientific operations can begin. The MRO carries six scientific instruments on board that are designed to collect more data than all of the previous Mars orbiters combined. Information on the weather, radar images of the surface and sub-surface, water sensors, and color images of the surface will be gathered to increase our overall understanding of Mars, as well as to help NASA select future landing sites for unmanned, and possibly manned, missions to the surface. The MRO is also designed to relay information from planned missions to the surface of the planet as well, including the Phoenix Mars Scout (set to land near the polar ice cap in 2008) and the Mars Science Laboratory (scheduled for launch in 2009).

A podcast about the mission is available from NASA. You can also check out where the MRO is now, check out a Quicktime movie about the process of just getting the MRO to this point, and more at the MRO page.

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

Joe's picture
Joe says:

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter successfully rotated and fired its main engines yesterday and put itself into an elliptical orbit of Mars.

Read the press release from NASA or listen to a podcast about the MRO's orbit of the red planet.

posted on Sun, 03/12/2006 - 12:41pm
Bob A.'s picture
Bob A. says:

Yesss! No more multimilliondollar mess-ups!

posted on Sun, 03/12/2006 - 5:45pm
Joe's picture
Joe says:

From my friend Cameron:

Y'all may have heard of this already, but I thought it was so cool I just had to send it out. Not only does Google now serve a map of Earth and the moon, but Mars too! How sweet is that? Plus there are map points for things like the infamous face, the Viking probe, and the rover laning sites.

I've had some fun poking around the various landing sites on the Mars and on the moon - it's pretty cool.

posted on Tue, 03/14/2006 - 5:34pm
Joe's picture
Joe says:

Zoom in on the moon map. Fun.

posted on Tue, 03/14/2006 - 5:38pm

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